Rhode Island Lawmakers Pitch ‘Incremental Legalization’ Plan

Published on June 8, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Providence, Rhode Island city skyline from Prospect Terrace Park.

Under a new plan being proposed by Rhode Island lawmakers, the possession of less than an ounce of cannabis could be legal as soon as next summer—and a regulated marketplace could soon follow.

The proposal, dubbed “incremental legalization,” isn’t meant merely to ease Rhode Island gently into legalization. It’s also an effort to synchronize the state’s cannabis reforms with the opening of Massachusetts’s adult-use cannabis market, set for July 1, 2018.

The plan is contained in a set of amendments proposed by Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Cranston) and Rep. Scott Slater (D-Providence), who have introduced bills— S 0420 and H 5555—to legalize cannabis in Rhode Island.

“We are prepared to compromise in a significant way, but there must be progress on the issue this year,” Miller said in a statement about the changes. “Our proposal balances the will of the majority of voters who want marijuana to be legal for adults while respecting colleagues who want to slow things down and get the regulations right.”

While the plan would initially legalize only personal possession, it would also establish a group charged with making recommendations around how Rhode Island should structure a regulated market of its own. The six-person advisory board would comprise two state officials selected by the governor, two state senators, and two state representatives to study the outcomes of legalization in other states. The board would need to issue a report by Jan. 1, 2018, with recommendations for the General Assembly on taxation and regulation.

In a press release, Slater said the compromised plan was the right one as the rest of the Northeast moves toward ending prohibition.

“Rhode Islanders will be able to cross the border and legally purchase marijuana, and they should not be considered lawbreakers in our state when they come back,” he said. “Virtually all of our neighboring states are moving in this direction, and we want to see Rhode Island at least establish a viable path to legalization so that we are ready to move forward next year.”

It’s not the only piece of cannabis legislation getting attention in Rhode Island. On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee approved an amended version of H 5551, which would establish a 22-person commission to study legalization.

Both the Marijuana Policy Project and its local partner, Regulate Rhode Island, have expressed concerns the House’s study commission will be ineffective. Matthew Schweich, director of state campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the “incremental” approach is a much more sensible one.

“Rhode Island voters want to see progress on this issue, and a 22-person study commission will not be constructive,” he said. “Instead of asking ‘if’ we should legalize marijuana, which is a question best addressed by the existing committee process in the General Assembly, we should study ‘how’ legalization could be implemented.”

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Gage Peake
Gage Peake
Gage Peake is a former staff writer for Leafly, where he specialized in data journalism, sports, and breaking news coverage. He's a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communications.
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